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Counter Intelligence

Was David Petraeus the last smart general in the U.S. military?

A few days after the Petraeus scandal broke in November, Fred Kaplan's excellent new book, The Insurgents, showed up in the mail. I ripped open the package it came in (I love getting free books in the mail) and contemplated the photo on the front cover. There was David Petraeus striding towards me, leaning determinedly forward, lips pressed together in a Mona Lisa smile. Well, maybe it's a smile: with Petraeus-gate followed by Paula-gate and Jill Kelley-gate and so on, it's also possible to interpret Petraeus's expression as anything from a look of grim resolution to a well-controlled wince.

Looking at that book jacket, my first thought was a frivolous one: Huh, I bet Fred -- until recently a fellow fellow of mine at the New America Foundation -- is ruing the day he agreed to put David Petraeus on the cover of his book.

This frivolous thought was of course quite wrong. It was surely appropriate for Kaplan to have made Petraeus the central character in his finely-grained account of the rise and fall of the "counterinsurgency insurgents," and from a commercial perspective, I suspect that David Petraeus's picture has never sold more books. (Even Paula Broadwell's gooey panegyric has been lifted from the depths of obscurity to the heights of heartland airport newsstands.)

Readers hoping for salacious tidbits will be left sorely disappointed, however. Kaplan's not that kind of writer, and this is not that kind of book. On the contrary: Kaplan's book offers an important corrective to the scandal-obsessed media stories about Petraeus. Petraeus was, inevitably, many things to many people: a stuffed shirt obsessed with the nitpicky details of military grooming standards; a driven narcissist who'd do anything to succeed; the general who kept the Iraq war from being a fiasco from beginning to end; a lonely warrior too easily seduced by a younger woman on the make. But these caricatures miss a point Kaplan drives home: whatever else he was, Petraeus was a passionate intellectual, deeply committed to learning, challenging, and questioning, and to developing new talent and testing new ideas.

The counterinsurgency community, which Petraeus both symbolized and helped create, enjoyed only a brief moment of preeminence before backlash set in -- but the COIN revival also constituted a courageous and far-reaching effort to reconceptualize war and reimagine the American military.

I've been thinking a lot about Kaplan's book this last month -- partly because it's just a good read, rich in texture and never less than wise -- but partly because these last weeks have seen a resurgence of articles and blog posts lamenting the American military's fearsome resistance to change. In December, Tom Ricks ran a guest post by a young Marine lieutenant complaining that "among my peers, the ones with ideas are the ones getting out, because they just don't feel the organization values them." In January, another Marine lieutenant decried the Corps's "endemic tolerance for mediocrity or outright incompetence."

It's not just the Marine Corps that has come in for scathing criticism in Foreign Policy of late. The Army? Jason Dempsey -- a lieutenant colonel and the author of Our Army, an excellent book on civil-military relations -- argued in November that the Army values tactical know-how over strategic vision, and Tim Kane, author of Bleeding Talent, took the Army to task last week for rigid personnel policies that push out the most creative and talented officers. Ricks himself continues to go after the generals, most of whom he suspects should be fired.

The Navy and Air Force come in for their own share of criticism if you dig deeply enough into Ricks's blog, as do the service academies and the military schoolhouses, but you get the basic idea. There are a lot of disgruntled grunts out there -- and a widely shared complaint is that This Man's Army (and Navy, and so on) may pay lip service to creativity, vision, and big ideas, but in reality, big ideas are as welcome in the military as ants at a picnic.

Let's discount these complaints by 30 percent on the grounds that Foreign Policy is not likely to publish pieces by military Panglossians insisting that all's for the best in the best of all possible worlds. We're still left with a lot of complaints about the dearth of big thinkers and big thoughts in today's military.

All this makes Fred Kaplan's book both timely and poignant. David Petraeus may have had feet of clay, but he was deeply committed to nurturing creative thinkers and developing new insights. He encouraged a generation of younger thinkers (most of whom are, consistent with Tim Kane's arguments, no longer in the military). He believed the military needed "soldier-scholars," and he urged officers to spend time at civilian universities to further their development into the "flexible, adaptable, creative thinkers" needed by today's military. Just as important, he pushed his protégés to put their ideas out there in writing -- because having interesting thoughts doesn't do anyone much good if they're never shared.

When Petraeus left the Army for the imagined greener pastures of the CIA, the military lost its most visible and charismatic champion of creative thinking. When his scandal-driven resignation from the CIA pushed him out of public life altogether, the loss was multiplied.

Ah, you say -- but surely Petraeus wasn't the only dedicated and visible military intellectual! Surely there are others like him out there -- intellectual soul mates in other services, younger versions of Petraeus!

I'd like to believe there are. I'd like to believe that the military is not only a learning organization but an idea-generating organization, fertile ground for hundreds more Petraeuses. I'd like to believe that the intellectual ferment that characterized the COIN community was not a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. I'd like to believe that there are people in the military community who don't mind being controversial and don't mind being wrong -- sometimes it's the big but flawed ideas that spark the most useful debates -- and I'd like to believe the military will nurture and reward those people, not push them ignominiously out.

I'd like to believe that despite the laments of Ricks's young Marine lieutenant, there are indeed passionate and imaginative people out there in our military who are thinking and writing about the big questions: what's the role of our military in a world in which threats are as likely to stem from diffuse global phenomena (climate change, economic interdependence) as from adversarial states or even non-state actors? What skills and what institutional architecture will enable the military to take on this complex world with agility and subtlety? How can we get from where we are today -- with a system that remains, in many ways, a Cold War holdover -- to the reforms we need?

Maybe those creative military thinkers and writers are out there -- but I just can't seem to find many of them. Of course, there are a few shining examples and interesting think pieces here and there -- but where are the sustained debates? Where are the new Petraeuses?

My inability to come up with more than a few names may reflect little more than my own limited networks and insights. So, inspired in part by Kaplan's book, I've developed an annoying new habit. Despite the many perverse internal incentives, the military has plenty of bright, insightful people in it, and when I meet them, I now ask what is becoming my standard conversational gambit: who do you see as the military's leading intellects, the visionaries who ask big questions and look for big answers? Who are Petraeus's intellectual sparring partners and heirs? Who's shaking things up, sparking debates that may yet change the shape of the armed forces, and change the way we think about the military and its role?

Discouragingly, the typical response I get is a wondering head shake and a perplexed, disturbed expression. "I know we need people like that, and I'm sure there must be some," one Army officer told me. "I just can't seem to think of any."

How about you, readers? Who am I missing? Who should I -- and all the rest of us -- be meeting and reading? Who are the up-and-coming intellects, the men and women who are challenging received wisdom?

Email me here with your thoughts and suggestions.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

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